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The Avenger

After the dread loss of his wife and child, millionaire adventurer Richard Henry Benson undergoes a terrible shock that paralyzes his face, turns his hair white and sets him on a mission to punish criminals the law cannot touch.

Background

The AvengerThe Avenger
Publisher: Street and Smith
Publication range: September 1939-September 1942
The Avenger came from the hero-pulp factory Street and Smith in what was probably a last-ditch effort to create another best-selling magazine in the tradition of Doc Savage and The Shadow. Editor Henry W. Ralston, in a meeting with Walter B. Gibson and Lester Dent, created much of The Avenger mythos, handing the reins to reluctant sci fi and horror pulp scribe Paul Ernst. Ernst didn't really want the job, but Ralston made him an offer he could not refuse — $750 per month and ready-made plots. Ernst penned 24 novels from 1939-42, before the magazine folded due to war paper shortages and lower-than-hoped for sales.

The initial novel, Justice, Inc. ranks as one of the best pulp origins ever developed, and, despite Ernst’s comments to the contrary, was far better written than the majority of material appearing at the time. It is in fact much more a mainstream novel with solid characterizations and motivations rarely found in pulp fiction. It was probably one of the most progressive as well, as evidenced by the inclusion of black husband and wife team members Josh and Rosabel Newton.

The first novel sets the tone for the series, and features the inclusion of The Avenger's first two aides, Scot pessimist Fergus MacMurdie and engineer Algernon Heathcote Smith (Smitty). The second novel adds the diminutive Nellie Gray; the third, Josh and Rosable Newton. The team is solidified until the 13th adventure, when Cole Wilson joins the band.

The Avenger is identified not only by his immobile face and white hair, but by the many trappings included in the series: his three buildings thrown into one headquarters on Bleek Street, myriad gadgets, death-defying escapes and the turn-about technique he used to vanquish his adversaries, his weapons Mike & Ike (a small tubelike gun and needle-sharp knife he keeps strapped to each calf), and his constant grief and remoteness, which provides the motivation for the series (in fact all members carried the same motivation, though not to the extreme Benson did, of having lost close friends or loved ones — except Cole Wilson, who was more in the vein of Doc Savage's aides, an adventure seeker).

The motif set for the first half of the series, the adventures alternated between being Doc Savage-like romps to The Shadow's organized crime tales. In the 13th adventure, Murder on Wheels, the series took a startling and possibly fatal turn. Benson was caught in a ray tempering machine that restored the use of his facial muscles and black hair. His drive for vengeance remained the same but the uniqueness of the series suffered. It didn't take long for the editors to realize that, and the change was played down after a few books and Benson developed a drug to make his face immobile again.

After 24 issues the series was canceled, but continued in a series of six short stories in Clues Magazine and The Shadow Magazine. These entries were penned by Emile Tepperman, who had ghosted a number of The Spider novels and provided much material for the various pulp magazine companies. The stories are slight, harshly edited and bear little resemblance to Ernst’s portrayal.

The series saw reprint under the Warner Paperback Library imprint in the early 1970s, proving more popular than in its original run. Gorgeous covers painted by Peter Caras and George Gross, using the same model James Bama used for the Doc Savage paperbacks, Steve Holland, helped propel the series through its orginal run of 24 then onto 12 new tales written by sci fi author Ron Goulart. Goulart's novels varied considerably from Ernst's, relying more on Cole Wilson as a proxy hero. His largest contribution to the mythos was probably the villain The Iron Skull in the novel fo the same name.

The contributors

The original concept for the Avenger came from an editorial meeting at Street and Smith that included such pulp giants as Walter B. Gibson and Lester Dent, chroniclers of The Shadow and Doc Savage. They provided many of the concepts for the series, while Street and Smith contributed plots. But it was veteran pulpsmith Paul Ernst (1899-1985) who breathed life into the series and made it his own. Ernst penned the original 24 novels (after the series ended the character was shunted to the back of Clues Magazine and one issue of The Shadow in a series of short stories written by Emile Tepperman, but the character became nearly unrecognizable) starting with Justice, Inc. and ending with Midnight Murder. When Warner Paperback Library reprinted the series in the early ’70s it proved so popular they hired sicence fiction author Ron Goulart to continue the novels. Goulart wrote 12 more novels starting with The Man from Atlantis and ending with Demon Island.

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